Death is not the End is a vivid collection of portraits by Netherlands-based photographer Heidi de Gier and journalist Babette Rijkhoff delving into the lives of people who can’t bear to farewell their companions. We got in touch with de Gier to get an insight on the project and the fascination with this less than ordinary subject.
Can you tell us a little about how Death is not the End came to be?
While talking about our mutual fascination and curiosity about taxidermy (with Rijkhoff), the idea arose to make a portrait series about people and their mounted pets. Just out of pure curiosity. We wanted to understand these people and their approach to death and saying goodbye.
Was it easy to find the people featured?
We soon realised that not everyone with a mounted pet was keen on talking to us, out of fear of negative reactions or being considered weird. Taxidermists were also often hesitant to contact their former customers as they said it was too upsetting. They were anxious to arouse these emotions.
Preserving a pet may seem a little morbid and yet I can imagine these people featured were hugely comforted by having their beloved pets remain with them even after death. Was there a common response as to why they all chose to have their pets preserved?
Yes, that’s exactly right; they all wanted to postpone the farewell. Kiki, the cat lady did it because she said it’s better than a picture and putting them in a jar is morbid. Some people kept them because the remains were beautiful in themselves, like Annelies who kept the skeleton behind glass and the skin as a rug.
There seem to be many different types of people who have preserved their pets. Was there anyone that stood out?
I will never forget Harry, the big guy with the tattooed arms holding his dog Shelly on his lap. While he was sitting there he got very emotional and said: “This is the first time I have held her in my arms since she got home from the taxidermist.” Above the couch is a painting of Shelly wearing a dress, one of the many portraits in their house, and both he and his wife Charlotte have a tattoo of her. Charlotte’s is on her shoulder with the words ‘you are always on my mind’. Harry’s is on his chest (the ear peeks above his shirt) together with eleven stars, one for every year she lived, and the words ‘I remember you always’. When she was alive the dog joined them everywhere, even to restaurants! They will never have a new one as Harry said it would be “a betrayal”.
Did you staged the photos at all?
I work as a director and ask people to sit right where I want them to be in the picture, but they look the way they look. The pets are photographed where they were displayed, because I wanted to show how the animals are integrated in the interior of the home.
So how would the people featured display the pets? Do they interact with them?
It’s different with each person. The students, for example, keep their cats Big Poelie and Tiny Poelie on the bookshelves in their living room, but sometimes they are used as part of a costume for a dress-up party, or they might be brought out to scare a newbie in the house. Shelly on the other hand is displayed on a side table almost like a shrine, under a portrait of her on the wall with the date of her birth and death.
How has the project affected you and Babette?
It has broadened our horizons and given us a little more insight into human behaviour and the universal fear of saying goodbye to the ones we love. As a country girl I grew up with life and death. Mortality was part of life-you mourn then move on. These people approach death and saying farewell differently.
Do you have a dog? Is taxidermy something you would consider?
I have a cat. And I like the idea of re-using parts of the animal better than just throwing it away. It feels more respectful, like what the eskimos do. There are actually nice things you can make with the skin.
Photography by Heidi de Gier
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